Decrease in cultural Christians

By June 6, 2014
Greg Jao is a National Field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Photo Courtesy of InterVarsity)

Greg Jao is a National Field director for
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
(Photo Courtesy of InterVarsity)

USA (MNN) — Can it be good that fewer people are calling themselves Christians?

Some say yes. But you have to read on to understand why.

Writer of LifeWay Research Ed Stetzer recently published an article highlighting trends the Church in America is facing.

The article predicts that in the next few decades, more and more Americans will stop identifying themselves as Christians.

Greg Jao of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship not only agrees with this prediction, but he views it in a positive light.

Jao says that the decline in the use of the word “Christian” doesn’t mean there is a decline in Christianity. “It’s really the decline of people that are nominally Christian: those who are culturally Christian and show up on Easter or Christmas Sunday.”

The Christians that Stetzer defines as “convictional,” and who Jao says have a real faith in Christ, will not decrease.

“I think one of the advantages for Christians in this season is: as fewer and fewer people identify themselves as culturally Christian (‘I show up occasionally’) and would say, ‘I have no religious belief at all,’ it actually gives us an opportunity to present the Gospel in a new way,” Jao says.

Nobody likes to be told what to do twice. For cultural Christians, that may be what it seems like is happening when someone presents the Gospel to them. They don’t want to hear that what they’re doing now might not be a real relationship with God.

Jao explains, “Twenty years ago you might talk to somebody about Jesus, and they would say ‘Oh, sure, sure. I’m already Christian; I go to church occasionally.’ Well, now you have people who say, ‘I don’t go to church at all.’ And because they don’t go to church at all, they’re a little bit more open to hear about Jesus and to consider who He is.”

The fact is, as more people become honest about their faith, the meaning of “Christian” will become narrower and better defined. This honesty creates a new platform from which to share the Gospel.

This trend suggests that churches will become stronger. They’ll be more united, more passionate, and better focused. The apathetic members will be weeded out, the more comfortable they are with admitting they don’t really believe in Christ. The ones left behind are sincere and ready to do the work of the Kingdom. It’s an example of God refining His people to become more effective Christians.

As a result, the younger generations won’t automatically ascribe themselves to Christianity in the way the generations before have.

Jao says this has been evident on college campuses. InterVarsity is finding more and more students who have never been to church, who are unfamiliar with Bible stories, and who don’t really know Jesus. And they don’t pretend that they ever have.

InterVarsity finds that is easy to engage these people in conversation. They’re more willing to look at Scripture with an open mind because they’ve had no previous exposure.

Over the last decade, InterVarsity has watched participation in campus programs grow.

At the same time, some groups of students and faculty are becoming increasingly antagonistic.

“Frequently, actually, at this point, InterVarsity is being challenged on university and college campuses because people find our commitment to the Gospel offensive,” Jao says.

Twenty-eight universities have kicked them off campus. They claim that by requiring their leaders be believers and followers of Christian doctrine, InterVarsity is discriminatory.

Jao doesn’t think resistance is bad. It shows that these people are actually thinking about spiritual things.

He explains, “In some ways, it’s much easier to talk to people who are resistant than to talk to people who are apathetic. And I would much rather have a conversation–an honest conversation where I’m listening thoughtfully and praying as I’m doing so–with someone who is angry with Christianity. Because at some level, people who are angry about Christianity or antagonistic toward spiritual things are actually more sensitive and aware of spiritual realities than people who are just apathetic.”

People actively thinking through faith have a better chance at encountering the true Gospel.

Even if the person has been hurt by the Church, Jao sees it as a great opportunity. He can ask for forgiveness and demonstrate repentance.

If the person thinks Christians are callous and unfeeling, the campus ministries of InterVarsity are perfect for proving them wrong.

Kids who have never encountered the Gospel or a skewed interpretation of it are open to conversation about faith in a way that people who have “heard it all before” may not be.

This means that the generation in college and younger has a unique platform to work from that no other generation has had before. Their peers are willing to listen and converse about our Creator. This is significant because they’re at an age where they’re still forming their worldviews.

“We’re seeing more students coming to faith now than at any time in our history,” Jao says.

If you’re wondering what you can be doing to help campus ministry specifically, contact InterVarsity. They can connect you to a local school you can pray for.

Check out ways that you can partner with InterVarsity to do more hands-on work.

The last thing is something we all should be doing in every area of our life.

Jao says, “In the churches now, what we need–what college students need and high school students need–are models of adults who regularly are having these kind of conversations with co-workers and neighbors, who are confident that the Gospel is good news, certain that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and therefore really is the Lord of the universe and Hope of the world, who have learned to listen carefully to what their neighbors and co-workers are saying, respond graciously about who Jesus is, but talk unapologetically about why they believe what they believe.”

College students and younger are longing for examples of integrity, compassionate engagement, and gracious certainty in the context of faith.

They want to know how to engage their world for Christ.

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